In Pursuit of Assertiveness

Assertiveness is a highly valued trait in today’s society. In fact, those who are seen as assertive tend to be judged more favorably during job interviews, on performance evaluations and during regular day-to-day interactions.

Lack of assertiveness is generally viewed negatively by others. Some associate it with psychological and physical weakness, insecurity and being non-committal. Moreover, those identified as non-assertive have increased stress levels, poorer life satisfaction and are at greater risk of mental health problems.

Regarding the latter, there is a growing body of research that shows having a passive communication style contributes to anxiety in some people–specifically panic.

It’s likely that many of your patients have passive communication styles. For some, it’s just a part of who they are and contribute to no real psychological or social problems. For others, however, it is the driving force behind interpersonal difficulties, occupational distress, anxiety and depression.

Below are eight steps for helping your patients develop their assertiveness and protect their mental health:

1. Understand your style. Before a person can change his/her communication style, it’s important to better understand how they interact with others and possibly, how they may be perceived by others.

Does your patient tend to get defensive or get upset when his boss, friend or partner provides him with constructive criticism? Does your patient always say “yes” even when she doesn’t agree with the person? Do you have patients who tend to put other people’s feelings and needs before their own?

The more behaviors you can help your patients identify that they want or need to change, the more successful you will be in helping them in their pursuit of assertiveness.

2. Maintain a confident demeanor. The reality is that people respect confidence. It doesn’t matter if it’s real or feigned. If you can help your non-assertive patients present themselves as steady, assured and strong, you will increase their confidence and enhance their perceptions by others.

For example, teach them to make eye contact during conversations. Encourage them to smile when they first meet someone. Stress the importance of maintaining proper hygiene, grooming and dress. And most importantly, work with your patients on learning how to keep their backs straight, walk with their heads up and never slouch when moving through their day-to-day lives.

3. Use “I” statements. “I” statements convey to people that you own your ideas and behavior. “You” statements put people on the defense and make you seem hostile and petty.

Assist your non-assertive patients with making the transition from “you” to “I”.

For example, teach them to say “I don’t agree with the accusations being made” and not “You are wrong for saying what you said about me.” At first, this task may seem like it’s easy for your patients. It may be in the beginning, but remember that old habits are hard to break. In order to make the switch stick, you’ll need to practice this with your patients regularly.

4. Share your opinion. It’s easy to become overwhelmed and frustrated when talking with opinionated (not necessarily correct) people. Teach your patients to state their opinion, even if they aren’t 100% sure they’re correct. Opinions are just opinions. That’s why they aren’t called facts. If they resist, remind them that one person’s opinion is no better or worse than someone else’s.

5. Say what you want and need. In general, people aren’t good at mind reading. If your patient wants or needs something, they should state what it is. Help them realize that they shouldn’t assume the other person will eventually pick up on their unhappiness or disappointment.

6. Stay on message. Messages of passive communicators often get overlooked or all out dismissed. If your patient has a point, encourage them to state it over and over until it is heard and acknowledged. It’s easy for someone to ignore you. It’s harder for someone to counter an opinion when it is heard in its entirety.

7. Keep your emotions under control. Overly emotional people rarely win conflicts. Teach your non-assertive patients that if they find themselves getting angry or feeling like crying, excuse themselves, take a few minutes and gain their composure and reengage the person.

8. Show others empathy. People who exude empathy and caring are listened to more closely than someone who seems cold and detached. Gaining someone’s attention is half the battle when it comes to getting one’s needs met.

Job interview photo available from Shutterstock

In Pursuit of Assertiveness

Bret Moore, Psy.D.

Dr. Moore is a board-certified clinical psychologist and prescribing psychologist in San Antonio, TX. His recent book Taking Control of Anxiety: Small Steps for Getting the Best of Worry, Stress, and Fear was developed as a self-help guide for people struggling with anxiety and for therapists to use with their patients. Dr. Moore is also coauthor of the Handbook of Clinical Psychopharmacology for Therapists-Ninth Edition and Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology Made Simple-Fourth Edition.


APA Reference
Moore, B. (2015). In Pursuit of Assertiveness. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 29, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 8 Jul 2015
Published on All rights reserved.